It was shortly before the Act 1 finale of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” that I realized it.
As the 83 cast members sang all-out on that stage, my eyebrows were raised and my jaw was slightly dropped – and I’m not the slightest embarrassed about it.
This show, the latest in Music Theatre Wichita’s 2017 season, is a powerhouse, without question. It’s a stunning piece of theatre from beginning to end.
It carries all the dramatic heft of a good production of “Les Miserables,” while working with source material that’s much leaner.
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I wasn’t expecting “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to succeed as well as it did, but I can now unequivocally recommend this production.
How, you ask, does this little-known musical succeed so well?
Let me count the ways:
▪ The technical: Music Theatre Wichita received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to beef up the technical aspects of this show, and it showed. This is how “Hunchback” worked so well technically: the show’s physical set is supplemented throughout by digital scenery projected onto the stage. For example, the same set pieces that serve as the Cathedral of Notre Dame also serve as a bridge over the flowing River Seine, thanks to the projections. During the number “Hellfire,” digital flames are projected onto the walls, and work rather well. The only time the projected scenery came across as cheesy was near the end of the show, when a 3-D animated Quasimodo swoops down from his tower to rescue the Gypsy girl Esmeralda.
It’s perhaps even more impressive when considering this is an experimental way of producing “Hunchback.” There’s no precedent to stage “Hunchback” this way, and largely, Music Theatre Wichita’s method takes challenging source material and makes it work rather seamlessly. Big kudos to projection designer Timothy Babb and set designer J Branson.
▪ The music: Tapping the Butler Community College choir was a decision that paid huge dividends for this production. The addition of 29 more singers on large company numbers really helped develop a strong, rounded sound. This orchestra, led as always by the talented Thomas W. Douglas, brings the musical to life. Personally, I’d say this was the most impressive performance by the MTW orchestra all season.
▪ The talent: Perhaps the greatest standout in this talented cast is local favorite Monte Riegel Wheeler, who plays the dastardly archdeacon Claude Frollo. Wheeler, who is well-known both at MTW and at Roxy’s Downtown for his “Kyle and Monte” shows, is near-perfect in the role. He plays the role with a complexity that comes to a head in the goosebump-inducing “Hellfire” scene. Erin Clemons, who plays the Gypsy girl Esmeralda (who is taking a break from “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” to do this show), shines as well, having a particular highlight in her solo, “God Help the Outcasts.” Skyler Adams, who plays the title character, Quasimodo, puts on a seminar in character development, as he pulls off a rather intricate interpretation of the Hunchback. His voice soars up into the rafters.
▪ The musical itself: This is far from a traditional Disney musical. It’s rather dark at times, dealing with issues such as disability-shaming, racism, religious bigotry, and much more. I applaud MTW for taking a risk on this musical, which was met with tepid critical reviews at its premiere in 2014. The changes made to the musical since then have dramatically improved it – this is still an Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz affair, after all.
I could go on, but I think I’ve gushed enough for one day.
Do yourself a favor and pick up tickets to this beautiful musical.